feminine hygiene

A study published recently in the journal BMC Women’s Health investigated the impact of popular feminine hygiene products on women’s health.

Neglecting feminine hygiene can have a negative impact on a woman’s overall health and well-being. Poor hygiene habits can cause an imbalance in the micro-organisms or microbiota naturally found in the vagina thereby allowing pathogens, the organisms that can cause infectious diseases, to multiply.

Imbalance can also occur after simple health interventions, such as taking a course of antibiotics. Other practices including birth control or using vaginal cleansing products can also disrupt the vagina’s healthy microbiota. Imbalances are usually self-limiting. But pathogens, if left untreated, can cause various gynaecological and obstetric problems including diseases, pregnancy-related problems, and even cervical cancer.

Do feminine hygiene products actually work?

Many commercial and homemade products claim to maintain feminine hygiene, and although there is little scientific evidence to support these claims, many women use these products. Yet, as mentioned above, disrupting the vaginal microbiota can lead to health problems. Vaginal douching is linked with fertility issues and conditions ranging from cervical cancer to a higher risk of bacterial vaginosis. In addition, feminine cleansing wipes may increase the prevalence of bacterial vaginosis, an infection that can cause unpleasant symptoms.

Recently, a Canadian team delved further and looked at a more diverse range of feminine hygiene products and behaviours and investigated their impact on women’s health. Using an online survey, the team asked Canadian women a series of questions about the types of feminine hygiene products or practices they used including anti-itch creams, wipes, douches, sprays, powders, moisturizers or lubricants, deodorant or tablet suppositories. They asked the women how often and why they used these products, along with their experiences of vaginal symptoms and other women’s health issues. The results were published recently in BMC Women’s Health.

Feminine hygiene products are popular

More than 95% of the 1,435 respondents had used at least one product or practice in or around the vaginal area in their lifetime; some women used products daily, whereas others used these products less often. The women used a diverse range of products with commercial products including vaginal moisturizers/lubricants, feminine or baby wipes, and anti-itch creams being the most popular. Some women also reported using products not exclusively marketed for feminine hygiene purposes, including hand sanitizers, body lotions, and cooking oils. These products were usually used externally, although a surprising number of women used products internally even though these were not intended for vaginal or internal use.

Health issues associated with feminine hygiene products

Women who used feminine hygiene products were three times more likely to report adverse health issues. About 80% of respondents had experienced at least one adverse vaginal health issue in the six months before completing the survey, with the majority experiencing itching (74.5%) or burning (50.2%). These symptoms are commonly associated with yeast or urinary tract infections, issues that were clinically diagnosed in more than 50% of respondents. It is unsurprising then that some of these women used anti-itch creams.

The team found that while some products were not associated with women’s health issues, others significantly increased the risk of experiencing yeast infections, urinary tract infections, and bacterial vaginosis regardless of age or sexual orientation. The products and practices causing concern included douching, moisturizers/lubricants, gel sanitizers, anti-itch creams, and feminine or baby wipes.

Only a small number of women used certain products

A reasonable number of women responded to this study, yet only a small number used certain products, making it difficult to interpret the results. Despite this, the results indicate that a subset of commonly used products and practices are probably associated with adverse health issues because they destroy the vagina’s normal microbiota or healthy bacteria. However, the authors were not able to establish whether some products, such as anti-itch creams, caused yeast infections, or if women resorted to using these products because they had an infection. Further studies are required to ensure women are informed of any potential health implications resulting from feminine hygiene product use.

Written by Natasha Tetlow, PhD

Reference: Crann SE, et al. Vaginal health and hygiene practices and product use in Canada: a national cross-sectional survey. BMC Women’s Health. 2018; 18:52. doi.org/10.1186/s12905-018-0543-y.

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